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UN refugee chief: at least 150,000 in Ukraine cross into neighboring countries

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have already left their homes because of Russia's invasion. Many are displaced within the country, and others are looking for safety in neighboring countries like Poland, Romania and Moldova. The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, released a video statement warning of the devastating consequences the conflict will have on Ukraine's civilians, and he promised the U.N. will help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FILIPPO GRANDI: Accordingly, we have stepped up our operations and capacity in Ukraine and in neighboring countries. We remain firmly committed to support all affected populations in Ukraine and countries in the region.

MARTIN: And the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, is with us now from Geneva. Commissioner, thank you so much for being here.

GRANDI: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: First of all, many of us have seen the images on television of traffic jams in Ukrainian cities and long lines at border crossings. Do you have a sense of how many people are being displaced or are trying to flee Ukraine right now?

GRANDI: It's very difficult. We have a very large team in Ukraine, about 200 people, Ukrainians and internationals. But most of them at the moment are in shelters, in bomb shelters because - or in safe places because of the military action. I have to tell you that we are telling them to be careful, but wherever they can, they go out and they try to help people in need. But it's very, very dangerous. And it is impossible to estimate the number of people on the move, but it is big. They're moving to either safer places in Ukraine if they come from a war zone, or they try to move mostly west to neighboring countries. And 150,000 people as of a couple of hours ago had crossed into those countries.

MARTIN: As you were just mentioning, the U.N. and other non-governmental groups have been active in Ukraine for years now, helping people displaced by the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine. Has that prepared the U.N. and others to help now during this conflict? Have there been some resources in place?

GRANDI: We were already helping a rather large displaced population displaced from previous phases of this conflict, especially 2014. The conflict has never really been resolved. The country was, as you know, had one area under the control of non-government forces, and we have been working since 2014 on both sides of that frontline, which is called contact line.

Now, of course, that is all changing very rapidly. We do not know what will emerge from this military operation, but certainly we do have stocks. And we have been able in the last few weeks to to stockpile more supplies. The problem, as I said, right now, is to move around, reach the people in need - and they are many more than last week - and distribute needed supplies, build needed shelters, protect people and help them. We need to have a decrease in military action to be more effective on the ground.

MARTIN: Obviously, there has been any number of high-level diplomatic efforts directed at this conflict which have not seem to have borne fruit, you know, so far. But what would you like to see from the two sides in this conflict? Obviously, it's a very dangerous situation for everybody, but what what would you like to see?

GRANDI: This offensive has to stop. You've heard the secretary general of the United Nations speak in the security council and say this very clearly and we're all behind him, all of us in the United Nations in asking for this to stop. This is the first thing. But, of course, we know the politics are difficult. As you said, diplomatic action has not yielded any positive result. But, you know, it's never too late to stop war and go back to diplomacy and to negotiation. Never too late. This can only bring untold suffering to millions and millions of people. And there's not much that humanitarian workers can do, especially in a conflict. So really, we appeal strongly to decision-makers, in particular in Russia, for this to stop and for diplomacy to take back the place that it must have.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, forgive me, this is where we started our conversation. Do you have any sense of - and I know it's very difficult to assess this, but how big of a refugee crisis could this provoke?

GRANDI: Look. It's anybody's guess, Michel, because as I said, our sporadic information that our colleagues have gathered by going out when they could and trying to help people on the move is that hundreds of thousands are on the move. And I have no doubt that many, especially if the conflict spreads across Ukraine, will try to move westwards, which is a safer area, and beyond to neighboring countries. So we may have the displacement of millions here, of millions of people. It may well be the largest refugee crisis that Europe has seen at least since the Bosnian war, the Balkans war in the '90s.

MARTIN: That was the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi. Commissioner Grandi, thank you so much for speaking with us today during this very busy time.

GRANDI: Thank you for inviting me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.